Tuesday, 18 December 2012
Post Newtown, Conneticut - Comforting Parents/Family and Children
America and the world have just witnessed a very traumatic and upsetting event. The shooting/murder of young children and teachers at an elementary school in Newtown, Conneticut. With the inital shock, constant news updates, and information overload there are some definite feelings that people can have - anger and upset being at the top of the list. A few things happen within a family after tragedies involving young children in a place that should be safe 1) The parents of (young) children can become highly anxious, even obsessive about their children's welfare, and 2) Children can become disturbed about the event and, depending on their age, they can become fearful themselves or fixated on death.
Everyone reacts differently to traumatic events. Some people take it in their stride and can put it aside and keep going on as per usual after the inital shock. Other people can be affected at a deeper level that manifests itself through everyday stress, anxiety, depression and plain fear. Everybody has their own way of reacting and processing the information of a traumatic event.
While it is understandable at times such as these we feel an even greater need to protect our children it is also important to maintain as much normalcy as possible in our lives, not sending out worrying, anxious vibes throughout the family fuelling our own intense worry, rippling down on to our children. Children pick up on their parent's body language, mode of behaviour, voice tone, and houehold differences. So it is important that parent's feel more at ease first of all in order to talk to their children, and support their worries or concerns.
There have been several events that I can recall with the utmost clarity that have horrified me and made me, as a parent, very worried for my children and their safety. They can easily be remembered to this day if I choose to pull the memories to top-of-mind. I'm not going to talk about what they were because I don't want to talk about further traumatic events. I don't want to give them a voice here. I just want to say that as a parent I understand how easy it is to become worried, fearful, and to allow something like this to more than side swipe you. It can feel like a collision with your psyche...if you allow it to take over. If you don't actively look for something to ground you and to dispute negative thoughts they can easily become all consuming.
I thought I would add some general tips. And they are general because I'm addressing people of many beliefs, ideas and personalities. I'm also talking generally about children who can range in age from 5 upwards. So the information is very generic. These tips are intended as a guide and are aimed at people removed from the event but still worrying and scared. Which is what happens after a trauma so close to home, one that you can empathise deeply with as a parent, as a family, as a human being.
For parents -
There will be probably be a very strong desire right now to keep your children at home and close to you. Wanting to keep them away from school and away from public places - sport, dance, shopping centres (to name a few places) as you work through some worries and emotions of your own. For a few days this is not a problem; believe me it is understandable. However, after a few days, if you are still having problems letting your child/ren do what they ordinarily do it starts to become more problematic. If you are lying awake thinking about it, can't seem to put it to the back of your mind for the most part, and it starts to impact on your work, your family or life in general, it is excessive worry. Talking to a therapist/counsellor would be a good idea so you can function without this excessive worry taking over your everyday life. No-one can wrap their children up in cotton wool. You cannot always be there by their side. Children need to socialise and work their way through life as they grow and mature. Our role as parent's is to love them and guide them, and children need a guide who is not full of worry.
Some tips -
1) Be as calm about life as you can. It is important to allow your children to vent. If they sense that you, as the major authority figure in their life, are fearful they won't feel like they can talk about their feelings to you. Believe it or not children do worry about upsetting their parents and if mum or dad seem upset they will keep information inside Then you won't know what may be going through their minds - their thoughts, their worries, their needs, their questions.
2) Be honest if/when questions arise, within reason. Every discussion you have should take into account the age of the child, their level of maturity and what you feel is relevant or too traumatic for them to know. Don't avoid questions because you feel uncomfortable, be open but do it in a calm, appropriate manner. Validate your child's feelings without allowing them or yourself to get anxious over a question or answer. As adults we don't like to feel our questions are silly or irrelevant or are dismissed out of hand. Children feel like that too. They are allowed to be worried or feel a particular way. It is our job as adults to comfort and nuture them, especially during times of crisis, trauma or uncertainty. Explain things in a clear, kind way that they will understand and that will help soothe. If a question takes you by surprise take your time to collect your thoughts before you answer, there's nothing wrong with that. You can always say "that's a very good question, I'm not sure let me think about that" or "we can think about it together." Ask them their opinion if it warrants one because that can often get the ball rolling on a good discussion..
3) If God or religion is a part of your household you can certainly use it at this time to comfort your child/ren. Do not use vengeful passages or anything that speaks of retribution - that will add to conflict and worry. There are many kind words in scriptures, look for those. Jesus was particularly fond of children reprimanding the Apostles when they tried to 'shoo' some children away. Once again the age of the child determines the way you deal with it. Angels are always beautiful, ethereal and often comforting images for young children to understand and relate to. Using prayer to send positive messages and to allow your child/ren to say their own words and prayer is also comforting and a means of them having some control.
4) Plenty of (appropriate) hugs and kisses are fine. Children may be more clingy, needing tactile support just a little bit more now. They may need to be reassured by seeing you, touching you. That is fine. Don't force children to have to hug or kiss if they don't want it or need it, but be aware they just may need that extra comfort for a little while to feel safe, secure and grounded.
5) Children may feel like they need to be around you more. They may follow you or want to be involved in some of your activities like cooking, housework, shopping, gardening. Let them feel that's okay by engaging them in activities to help or just feel good being around you and feeling they are doing something productive. Planting a tree or flowering plant can be a terrific way of remembering negative situations in a positive way. "We're going to plant this tree to remember...."
6) Animals often play a big part in comfort at this time because they love unconditionally, they don't ask for much more than a pat or to be around you. They can give a sense of protection and joy. Animals also 'listen' when children talk to them without the child feeling judged. Sometimes you can get a child to open up to via your pet and you can listen discreetly to what they may keep inside otherwise.
7) Art is often a way for a child to express inward emotions that they can't verbalise. If your child/ren wish to draw, or if you are worried, get them to draw how they're feeling at the moment. Do they have a sad face in the picture? A happy face? Are family members missing from the picture? Is the picture a happy one, or a sad, or angry one? If the picture(s) concern you you can use them to show a therapist.
9) Routine is good. Showing that their part of the world is still doing the same things and their family are still doing the same things says 'there's no need to fret'. That life is okay and everything is as per usual. If you suddenly have anxiety running through the household, whispered talks, changes to school - keeping them home, not wanting them to go anywhere, getting teary when you drop them off or pick them up, allowing standard rules to drop it can cause concerns, problems and alarm for your child/ren.
10) Reassurance is a good thing. Reassuring children that things are okay. That family members are still here, love them and are not planning on going anywhere is a good solid platform for children to feel anchored to. Reassurance is generally only required if you can see that your child is needing it or asking for it. Don't make a fuss about something that they aren't worried about. No need to ask unnecessary questions when there doesn't seem to be a concern. Younger children, in particular, don't do very well with a lot of direct questions or fuss.
11) Keep up activities that your child normally takes part in because it gives tham a strong sense of their everyday life, friendships, teamwork and community.
12) Please don't stop having fun. The world keeps on going after any death or tragedy. You and your family need to enjoy your life, or it's a life wasted.
13) I know it can be hard to not know what the latest develpoment is but if you are overly impacted by the events of Newtown, Conneticut stay away from the news. Do not allow young children access to upsetting pictures or details. Protect them. As a parent? You cannot change the outcome of what has happened but you can keep yourself in a more positive frame of mind. The news is full of sad stories with photos which make it so much more real. If you are profoundly impacted it can make you feel decidely worse. You need a breather and to watch things that are neutral for a while.
Seek professional help if -
You, as a parent, find it hard to leave your children at childcare, school, or other places where this has never been an issue for you before. If you are having frequent worrying thoughts about your child being harmed. If you are more clingy to your child, tearful around them, you should talk to a professional therpaist/counsellor to help you through it. It is not a sign of weakness it is seeking support for a short period of time after a traumatic event.
Your child is suddenly fearful of going to school, or other events, and this is out of the norm for them. They seem scared to leave your side, and this is unusual for them. If your child is suddenly withdrawn, not wanting to eat, not wanting to socialise, and this is out ot the usual for them. If they are suddenly fixated on death, talking about it - whether it be them, a friend, the children of Newtown, or a family member and things you say don't seem to be helping, then seek a therapist/counsellor to help them through it.
Just a few things to think about. Love your children, show them you care, you are always available to listen and support them. That they are allowed to have concerns but don't let those concerns bloom into something that is insidious and unnecessary. The same applies for you as a parent. It is easy to become unsettled and increasingly frightened that your children are unsafe, however it isn't necessary to become so upset that you act out of character, becoming depressed or anxious. There are people available who are trained to listen and help.
I hope that the information above is helpful in some way. I hope it makes you feel like someone understands. It is my way of reaching out from Australia to show solidarity, support and love.